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Society

How The Pandemic Spread Private Jet Travel Beyond The Super-Rich And Powerful

Once the reserve of the super-rich and famous, private jet travel has soared during the pandemic. Amid border closures and travel restrictions, private charter flights are sometimes the only option to get people — and their pets!? — home.

Private flights have soared in demand for their ability to skirt certain travel issues

Private flights have soared in demand for their ability to skirt certain travel issues

Hannah Steinkopf-Frank

PARIS — Traveling by private jet has long been a mode of transportation long exclusively reserved for the super rich, extremely powerful and very famous. This article will not report that it is, er, democratizing....but still.

During the pandemic, a surprisingly wide demographic have turned to private jets not because it was a luxury they could afford, but out of desperation, trying to reach a destination in the face of border closures and widespread flight cancellations. Last year, private jet hours were close to 50% higher than in 2020, according to the Global Business Aviation Outlook. While some of the increase can be attributed to more travel in 2021 because of COVID-19 vaccination, it still amounts to 5% more hours than before the pandemic, as Deutsche Welle reports.


Further, during this period of border closures and canceled flights caused by the coronavirus, private flights have soared in demand for their ability to skirt certain travel issues and avoid infection from other travelers.


Subsidized by the U.S. government

It might be surprising, then, that private jet firms have benefited from the same U.S. government bailouts that supported the broader aviation industry and other sectors severely impacted during the early stages of the pandemic. As ABC News reports, more than half a billion dollars went to these boutique travel firms, which charge about $20,000 for a flight across the U.S.

Dean Baker, co-founder of the progressive think tank Center for Economic and Policy Research, told ABC News: “This was the rest of us paying to subsidize the luxury consumption of the very richest people in the country.”

Special treatment for pets

More than just saving time through skipping security lines and long waits at airports, flying private jets also lets the super wealthy, and those desperate enough to break the bank, sidestep other regulations. As part of its zero-COVID policy, Hong Kong has severely limited flights.

High cargo rates for animals and flight cancellations are making it very hard for pet owners to leave the island taking their furry friends along. Those desperate enough are spending upwards of $25,665 to privately charter themselves and their pets. Many are pooling their resources to share in the cost.

Chris Phillips, pet and medical charter manager at Air Charter Service, a private jet broker, tells the Financial Times that, “There’s a huge demand. People want to get their pets back [to their home countries], their cats and their dogs and their rabbits, and they just can’t get them back via commercial routes.”

The only way to get home

In Morocco, private jets were the only way for many to enter the North African kingdom after it suspended all air travel from Nov. 29 until Feb. 7 due to the rapid spread of the Omicron variant. Close to 6,000 Moroccans were stuck abroad, as Jeune Afrique reported. In this case, many weren’t looking for a luxurious travel experience but were just desperate to return to their home country.

Traveling in groups was one way to decrease the expense, to as low as $1,400 per passenger for a flight from Europe, but for some this still means relying on family support or finding other ways to raise money.

Jeune Afrique magazine highlights the case of a young Moroccan woman named Soumaya who went to France in November for work. She had been trying to fly back to Rabat since her mother suffered from a stroke and was on a waiting list hoping to see her mother before it was too late.

On the climate change question

While an end of the COVID-19 pandemic will likely mean that more people are able to travel on regular commercial flights again, the private travel trend is only likely to grow. That’s because of a growing elite class of regular jet travelers and the emergence of private charter businesses that offer a (relatively) more affordable subscription model for their flights. This is unless there is widespread public pressure to shame those valuing comfort over sustainability.

During last year’s COP26 summit, the BBC calculated that hundreds of world leaders and other public figures traveled by private jet to Glasgow to tackle the climate crisis. Many had flown directly from the G20 summit in Rome. On a private flight with nine passengers, this equates to 1.2 tonnes of C02 emissions per passenger, compared to just a quarter of a tonne for a commercial flight.

Debbie Hopkins, an expert in decarbonizing transport at the University of Oxford, explained to the BBC that “a huge amount of fuel is used during takeoff and landing of a plane, no matter how many people you have on board. So an already polluting mode of transport [commercial aviation] becomes even worse [with private jets]."

Lifestyle choices of the uber wealthy

Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg (who traveled to COP26 by train) told AFP after the event that — while the climate crisis is not caused by private jets — “it is a bit hypocritical... that world leaders who live very close by, for instance, Boris Johnson, arrived in Glasgow by private jet while trying to solve the climate crisis.”

While combating climate change begins with individual choices, there is a significant difference in the personal responsibility of the majority of the planet and the lifestyle choices of the uber wealthy.

As Dan Price — the CEO of a credit card processing company who is most known for slashing his own salary to set a $70,000 minimum wage for all of his employees — recently tweeted:

“The 20 richest billionaires cause 8,000x more carbon emissions than the billion poorest people combined. Climate change is primarily a rich-people consumption problem but when things get bad they can just charter their super-yacht or private jet somewhere safe.”


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